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Gingerbread Houses in Haiti

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With the help of a C.V. Starr Scholarship, I was able to do fieldwork in Port-au-Prince for a month in May 2012. Living with a Haitian family, I started to inquire about the daily life of an historic neighborhood of Port-au-Prince in order to track the popular responses to the 2010 earthquake. The following text is a report on my findings in this area of Port-au-Prince. Without the C.V. Starr Scholarship, I would not have been able to engage in an in-depth pilot project, which, ultimately, will serve as the basis of my PhD. Dissertation in Anthropology. CGI provides outstanding opportunities to UNC students who are eager to learn abroad!

“Pacot is a quiet residential neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Here, thick concrete walls, sometimes colorfully painted, sometimes topped with forbidding barbed wire, surround houses of a wide array of styles. Down these tunnel-like streets of these intermittently low and high enclosures, between the breadfruit and mango trees, the sunlight pours down on pedestrians, merchants, shoe shiners, SUVs and shabby taxis.  It is the end of May in Port-au-Prince. On this early morning, a man totes fluffy cotton mops to their destinations, a line of teenage students dressed in their impeccable uniforms hurry over the shattered sidewalk, an elderly lady meticulously picks over avocados from the dark green pyramid of granular fruit, where, in the shade, the vendor reads a dog-eared religious pamphlet. Walking in these picturesque streets offers a respite from the tumult of the overwhelmingly jammed, dusty arteries of ruined concrete buildings that usually appear on foreign TV screens when Haiti is mentioned. With the ornamented yet rusty summits of the old houses looking down on these slow-paced vignettes of daily life, Pacot contains clues to what a peaceful street-life and successful (re)construction of Port-au-Prince could be.

Most obviously, the numerous old houses of the neighborhood, that resisted the earthquake of January 2010, should trigger the interest of any agent involved in habitat building in Port-au-Prince. They range from small wooden structures comprising two or three bedrooms to polychromatic and richly ornamented two-story mansions. Built at the turn of the nineteenth century, both the extravagant homes and the humble light wood-frame constructions offer blueprints for paraseismic structures adapted to tropical weather. With their high ceilings and many shuttered windows, they enable air to circulate; with their roofed galleries they protect their residents against the glaring sunlight and heavy rain; their elevated floors diminish flood dangers and, finally, their timber frames allows for some flexibility in case of quakes. Moreover, in a city where anonymous concrete structures make up most of the landscape, these unusual dwellings, strongly rooted in Haitian cultural history, stand as some of the last monumental landmarks of the capital.

These vast and elaborate residences reminiscent of the Victorian Painted Ladies were named Gingerbread Houses by American tourists visiting Haiti in the fifties. Far from being pale copies of their American cousins, they were designed by Haitian architects trained in France at the end of the nineteenth century. Baussan, Mathon or Maximilien, in fact, borrowed features from the French seaside architectural style and from the American Queen Anne style architecture to build houses suitable to the tropical setting. The Gingerbread Houses are distinctively Haitian by the mere fact that a confluence of international cultural traits was channeled through a distinctive Haitian vision materialized, for instance, in the inventive ornamentation handcrafted by local master carpenters. Owned by the Port-au-Prince bourgeoisie at the beginning of the twentieth century, these houses are now occupied by people whose origins lie in every segment of the  Haitian social spectrum. In the same neighborhood, the passerby can catch sight of luxurious mansions inhabited by prominent members of the political elite, as well as lopsided houses squatted by several families. Usually, however, these houses belong to the vanishing middle-classes who are struggling to keep their historical homes in good shape. Joseph Bonnard, a former bank clerk who inherited a derelict crimson and gold wooden mansion, explains that his meager income does not allow him to take care of his house and to repair the structural damages the disaster caused. “Right after the quake,” Bonnard remembers bitterly, “almost no help reached the neighborhood. People were directed towards camps, even when they had a place to stay. Instead of building plastic houses with no windows, it would be wiser to help folks repair their own places. But it’s not happening.” Bonnard’s words would become a refrain as I  encountered more and more people in the same situation.

Amid the apparent torpor, the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (Fokal), stands as a beacon of hope as its project for the restoration of the Gingerbread Houses slowly progresses. Farah Hyppolite, a Haitian architect in charge of the project, presents a potentially fruitful approach to dealing with the reconstruction of her native city. By pointing out that the old houses of Port-au-Prince reflect a viable type of architectural design and house-building knowledge, she places the Haitian workers and their traditional skills at the heart of the reconstruction process. Fokal is now training a new generation of builders in order to restore the Gingerbread neighborhoods, and, possibly, to build a form of solid habitat that is culturally sound. Hyppolite would like the rehabilitation process to go faster and to see the Haitian state taking the lead in the conservation and restoration of its public and private patrimony. As we walked down Rue “O”, a narrow alley perpendicular to the central and busy Bois-Verna artery, she showed me parcels of land where no less than five small Gingerbread Houses had been bulldozed in a matter of two months. “The land is worth more than the houses themselves. There is tremendous financial pressure to get rid of the Gingerbreads. In these times when we have lost so many of our landmarks, the state should offer a legal framework to protect our cultural artifacts and help proprietors keep their historic homes alive.” Since 2010, more than twenty historical houses have been destroyed; the need to protect them is urgent.

Rehabilitating the Gingerbread neighborhoods, such as Pacot, and enabling residents to repair their homes are not only cultural emergencies but also ways to consolidate areas of the capital where different strata of the Haitian social landscape coexist peacefully on streets that are pleasant to walk and congregate on. However, such a vision demands strong governmental action: a politics of decentralization based on the revival of rural regions and other cities could open up the capital and alleviate the demographic pressure that weighs on it. Secondly, consolidating institutions dealing with cultural heritage, such as the Haitian Institute for the Preservation of the National Heritage, and giving them adequate legal and financial means would certainly clarify the direction efficient city planning should take. Finally, engaging the numerous foreign actors, so conspicuously absent from the streets of Port-au-Prince, in a constant dialogue with the whole of the population they are trying to help could only be beneficial. In this way, misguided construction projects with misconceived building designs could hopefully be abandoned for projects that place Haitians and their cultural and ecological needs at the center of the overall effort.  Amid the chaos of the shattered stone of this urban capital lies a rich historical heritage. By drawing on its past and on the skills of its inhabitants, Port-au-Prince could emerge again as a functioning city, just as it was when the Gingerbreads were erected at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Vincent Joos

Vincent Joos is a Ph.D. student in anthropology. He received a C.V. STARR Scholarship for an ethnographic study of Haiti's sustainable forms of architecture: the Gingerbread Houses Project. Check out the Awards page of our site to learn more.

 

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